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State’s first industrial hemp license goes to a Southern Oregon man

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Edgar Winters says he and others will plant a 25-acre hemp field this spring – providing they can get seeds.

A man who was issued the first state permit to grow industrial hemp said he and a nonprofit group of growers and activists hope to plant a 25-acre field in Southwest Oregon this spring.

Edgar Winters, of Eagle Point, Ore., who describes himself as director of the Oregon Agriculture Food & Rural Consortium, acknowledged there are problems obtaining seeds for planting and other complications, but said he is optimistic. Winters also said warehousing and processing facilities will be ready to go when a crop is harvested in late summer.

“We are in position to do 40 tons a day at our processing mill,” Winters said. “We’ve got our ducks in a row.”

Getting seed to plant is one of the major hurdles. Importing it requires the approval of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, and the Oregon Department of Agriculture and Oregon State University are working with the DEA on that process. In addition, Winters said a major Canadian hemp company, Hemp Textiles International, has breeders’ rights to its seed and will not allow Oregon growers to retain seed for planting. Meanwhile, the existing state statute requires hemp seed produced in Oregon to be replanted.

“We’re at a standstill,” Winters said.

He said hemp seeds might be available from Russia, Hungary, Australia or New Zealand.

“We have to import to get started,” Winters said. “We don’t want our farmers to sit around another year.”

Winters’ LinkedIn profile lists him as self-employed and the chief operations officer for Natural Good Medicines. It also lists him as a master gardener and involved in research and development services for industrial hemp. He said people often hear his name and mistake him for Texas rock and blues musician Edgar Winter.

Ron Pence, who oversees the industrial hemp growing program for the state agriculture department, said the seed issue is one of three tweaks the Legislature may want to make it the 2015 session.

As written, a 2009 state statute says hemp seed collected in an Oregon harvest can only be used to produce a new crop — not crushed for oil or other high-value products, for example, or used as livestock feed. Pence said the restriction appears to be an oversight.

Another issue is the requirement for a three-year growing and handling license and a three-year seed handling permit, each of which cost $500 a year, or $1,500 for the required three years.

“A person could easily invest $3,000 in a license and permit before spinning a wheel to produce hemp,” Pence said. The fees may be restructured to an annual basis, at $500 each, so a person could try his or her hand at it for a year at less expense.

A provision that requires a minimum production area of 2.5 acres also may be reconsidered, Pence said.

The Oregon Legislature legalized hemp cultivation in 2009, but the law was never implemented because the U.S. Department of Justice classified hemp the same as marijuana. The federal classification remains, but the justice department has said it won’t interfere in states that have legalized hemp production if they adopt a robust regulatory system. Industrial hemp was included in the November 2014 ballot measure that legalized recreational marijuana use, possession and cultivation.

Hemp is related to marijuana but has a much lower concentration of THC, the chemical compound that makes pot users high. Industrial hemp was widely grown and milled in the Midwest especially through the 1940s, but faded. Supporters of hemp’s revival note that it has multiple uses, including for fiber, fabric, food, oils, cosmetics, plastics and many more.

Russ Karrow, former head of the Crop and Soil Science Department at Oregon State University’s College of Agricultural Sciences, has said hemp grown for fiber would do well in the Willamette Valley. But hemp grown for seed, probably a more valuable crop, would require summer irrigation, Karrow said. Hermiston and Treasure Valley, in Eastern Oregon, have warmer growing days than the Willamette Valley and would be the best places to grow hemp, Karrow said in interviews with the Capital Press.